Saturday, June 05, 2004

Aggregating resources (part one)

Some ideas just make people mad. Bjorn Lomborg did this in 2001 when he published The Skeptical Environmentalist, which disputed the claims of the environmental movement and accused it of being sensationalist. He's at again, this time enlisting nine reknown economists (4 of whom are nobel prize winners) to prioritize the world's problems and allocate resources to them: Copenhagen Consensus

From conquering AIDS to ending hunger to enforcing environmental treaties, the experts ranked ten issues using cost-benefit analysis. They issues/proposals they assessed and the ranking they assigned them are below:

Very Good
1 Diseases Control of HIV/AIDS
2 Malnutrition Providing micro nutrients
3 Subsidies and Trade Trade liberalisation
4 Diseases Control of malaria
5 Malnutrition Development of new agricultural technologies
6 Sanitation & Water Small-scale water technology for livelihoods
7 Sanitation & Water Community-managed water supply and sanitation
8 Sanitation & Water Research on water productivity in food production
9 Government Lowering the cost of starting a new business
10 Migration Lowering barriers to migration for skilled workers
11 Malnutrition Improving infant and child nutrition
12 Malnutrition Reducing the prevalence of low birth weight
13 Diseases Scaled-up basic health services
14 Migration Guest worker programmes for the unskilled
15 Climate Optimal carbon tax
16 Climate The Kyoto Protocol
17 Climate Value-at-risk carbon tax
(Some of the proposals were not ranked and so are not listed above)

I'm not really that interested in the outcomes of the group's work. Cost benefit analysis doesn't make me think the life of a child orphaned by AIDS is any more (or less) valuable than the life of a child orphaned by hunger. But I am interested in the approach - the idea of bringing disparate experts together to vet proposals for addressing identified issues.

So here's a question: if this approach holds any merit (and the private foundations*, Ministry of Environment of the Danish government, and The Economist Magazine - all sponsors of the work - must have assumed it did) why don't we try it more often?

We could use the financial resources (money and access) of private and public funders to pool intellectual resources (experts) who would put forth and/or vet proposals for addressing identified issues. After all, so what if ten groups modeled after the Copenhangen group came up with one viable proposal for each of ten issues - who's to say we can't marshall the necessary resources to implement those proposals? What we need is aggregation of approach and funding - not consensus on a single issue.

After all, when Lomborg and colleagues were done, their list of priorities "only" costs US $50 billion, less than 1/5 of the amount Americans give in charity each year. Count in public resources and the rest of the world's philanthropy, and it becomes clear that we can afford the money for real change, if only we could put our minds to it.

*Private funders include The Tuborg Foundation; The Carlsberg Bequest; and The Sasakawa Peace Foundation and SPF-USA

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